RIP: Tribute to E.P. Sanders

The passing of E.P. Sanders hits hard. It was exactly 32 years ago, during my trimester college break (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s) that I first read Paul and Palestinian Judaism, just “for the fun of it”, on the recommendation of a college professor who thought my view of Paul was a bit too Lutheran and I could do better. It was my first biblical-studies book that I read seriously, cover to back, and I learned immensely from it — what the field was really like, and what biblical scholars actually do in pursuing exegesis over eisegesis. I would be reading more of Sanders in the near future.

His impact on New Testament studies is almost legendary by this point. He dismantled caricatures of Judaism and reframed Paul and Jesus accordingly, and here I provide some exemplary citations. If they’re not my “favorite” Sanders quotes, they’re close to that, and I believe they largely stand the test of time.

1. Covenantal Nomism (Pharisees/Rabbis’ view of the law). In 1977 Sanders unpacked rabbinical Judaism, ideas of which probably came from the Pharisees of Jesus and Paul’s day. His book rightly argued that it’s illegitimate to use Judaism as a legalistic foil. He summarized the pattern of rabbinic religion as follows:

“God has chosen Israel and Israel has accepted the election. In his role as King, God gave Israel commandments which they are to obey as best they can. Obedience is rewarded and disobedience punished. In the case of failure to obey, however, man has recourse to divinely ordained means of atonement, in all of which repentance is required. As long as he maintains his desire to stay in the covenant, he has a share in God’s covenantal promises, including life in the world to come. The intention and effort to be obedient constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not earn it.

Only by overlooking this large pattern can the Rabbis be made to appear as legalists in the narrow and pejorative sense of the word. Their legalism falls within a larger context of gracious election and assured salvation. In discussing disobedience and obedience, punishment and reward, they were not dealing with how man is saved, but with how man should act and how God will act within the framework of the covenant. They did not think that they earned their place in the covenant by the number of commandments fulfilled. Nor did they think that the transgression of more commandments than were fulfilled would damn them.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 180-181)

2. The Solution Precedes the Problem (Paul’s view of the law). Then turning to Paul in the same book, he famously argued that the apostle’s thought ran backwards, from “solution to plight”:

“It seems likely that Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight. The attempts to argue that Romans 7 shows the frustration which Paul felt during his life a a practicing Jew have mostly been given up, and … it may be further observed, on the basis of Philip 3, that Paul did not, while ‘under the law’, perceive himself to have a ‘plight’ from which he needed salvation…

“Paul’s logic seems to have run like this: in Christ God has acted to save the world; therefore the world is in need of salvation; but God also gave the law; if Christ is given for salvation, it must follow that the law could not have been; is the law then against the purpose of God as revealed in the Christ? No, it has the function of consigning everyone to sin so that everyone could be saved by God’s grace in Christ… Since salvation is in Christ, therefore all other ways to salvation are wrong… It seems to me completely impossible to make the argument run the other way, beginning with an anthropological analysis which shows in advance that humans are bound over to sin because of the desire to save themselves.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 443, 475)

Returning to Paul six years later, he took on the complexities of Paul’s theology, developing his “solution-to-plight” case more thoroughly. Romans 7:7-25 notwithstanding, Saul the Pharisee had no problems being righteoused by the law, as Paul the Christian now brazenly admits in Philip 3:6. Sanders believed that Philip 3:4b-6 is a key passage to understanding Paul’s critique of the law:

“Paul does not say that boasting in status and achievement was wrong because boasting is the wrong attitude, but that he boasted in things that were gain. They became loss because in his black and white world, there is no second best. His criticism of his former life is not that he was guilty of the attitudinal sin of self-righteousness, but that he put confidence in something other than faith in Jesus Christ.” (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 44)

3. Prophet vs. Teacher (the historical Jesus). Sanders was the first to convince me that the historical Jesus was less an ethical and moral teacher, and more a prophet who expected the end of the world fairly soon, and who acquired a following primarily through his success as an exorcist-healer. I liked the way he toyed with Morton Smith’s eccentric ideas of “Jesus the Magician”, clearly of the mind that Smith went too far with his thesis, but giving it more credence than reconstructions of Jesus that made him a talking-head for modern liberal ideas:

“People like neat categories, and and a good deal of attention has been focused on the question of what sort of figure Jesus was: into what category should he be placed? Morton Smith, for example, thought that Jesus should be considered more a magician than a prophet. I continue to regard ‘prophet’ as the best single category. Jesus was also, however, an exorcist. An exorcist might imitate the behavior of the person whom he intended to cure. This might include thrashing about, rolling on the floor, and the like… According to Mark 3:21 (the Beelzebub controversy], Jesus’ family tried to seize him because he was ‘beside himself’. If he had sometimes behaved in uncoventional ways, people would not necessarily have thought that he was a magician, but they would have looked at him a little strangely…

“I think that we may be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as the result of healing, especially exorcism. This is an important corrective to the common view, that Jesus was essentially a teacher.” (The Historical Figure of Jesus, pp 153-154)

I could list many more influential citations, but these are the ones that first come to mind when I think of how Sanders influenced my thinking about Jesus, Paul, and the religious world they were born into.


Reading Roundup: 2022

Of the dozen or so books I read this year, I recommend the following seven. Four were published this year; two I was catching up on; and one of them was published five centuries ago.

1. The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research. Robert Spencer, 2022. This is the Qur’an I keep close at hand now for ready reference. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a tool like that, and one that we’ve needed for a long time. Spencer’s book offers four features that are impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume: (1) Variant readings: It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament. (2) Tafsir commentary: Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative, and their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam. (3) Critical commentary: Citations from academic scholars shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an. (4) Clarity: This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages, for example like the many exhortations to jihad; the words is usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. Importantly, the suras are explained in view of the doctrine of abrogation (the late suras of Medina supersede or take precedence over the early suras of Mecca) and that if there is any one sura that has the “final say” in mainstream Islam, it’s sura 9. This easily tops my list; see here for a full review.

2. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Absolutely required reading — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I certainly did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.

3. Castaways. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 (English translation: 1993). Written by a Spanish explorer, this journal is a wealth of anthropological information about Native American tribes that are unattested anywhere else. It’s a fantastic read on its own right, and certainly the best book I’ve ever read about the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and it’s incredible that he survived to leave us the details. He was naked for the full eight years, freezing during the cold seasons, and often lived on a diet of spiders, worms, and cacti. It’s no surprise that from the original expedition of 600 Spaniards, only he and three others survived (the only surprise being that any of them survived), mostly by being accepted among the various native tribes as witch-doctors who performed faith-healings. For a man of his times Álvar Núñez was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms, and who was enraged when he finally reconnected to Spanish civilization in Mexico and found that his countrymen wanted to make war on the natives and enslave them. Full review here.

4. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons. Ben Riggs, 2022. If you really want the dirt on TSR, this is the book to read. My biggest takeaways: (1) “Saint” Gary Gygax was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. (2) Lorraine Williams was even less admirable, notwithstanding the author’s attempts to reconsider her legacy. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them social equals), treated her staff like shit, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. (3) By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. There is more here. Old-school gamers will definitely enjoy (?) this book.

5. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. David Motadel, 2014. This won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize, but it somehow never got on my radar until this year. It’s a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details, for example that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go all the way back to the late 1800s. The book’s thesis is that Berlin’s engagement with Islam in 1941-45 was at least as extensive as in 1914-18, if not more so. Motadel examines the way Nazi Germany promoted Islam, and the ramifications of that alliance in terms of both race/ethnicity and religion/ideology. Hitler devalued Christianity while extolling Islam; for him Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak, while Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. It’s intriguing that Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it (by upholding white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways). This book is utterly fascinating and the research behind it impeccable. Full review here.

6. The Jazz-Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Ryan S. Walters, 2022. I can’t think of a better way to honor the 100th anniversary of Harding’s presidency. I rate him the second best president of all time for all the reasons Walters covers in his book. Harding slashed taxes and government spending, started a booming economy, and achieved world peace through international cooperation instead of war-mongering. He went to bat for African Americans, even going so far as to address a crowd in the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full swing: he insisted on the need for equal rights for blacks, many of whom listened to the speech behind a segregated barrier. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, appointed liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Woodrow Wilson during the first world war. To this day, Harding is remembered for almost none of this. After he died the scandals of his administration were uncovered — scandals that were no worse than those that plagued many other presidential administrations, and Harding didn’t even participate or gain anything from them. But for bizarre reasons, historians continue to exaggerate them. Read this book (as well as my Rescuing a Reputation) and allow the real Harding to overthrow the demonized Harding.

7. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. Dale Allison, 2021. Like Allison I aspire to be led to my conclusions, not led by them, and this book is a model of such aspiration. In 400 pages it reworks and hugely expands on the 177-page essay from Resurrecting Jesus (2005), and amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection that I know of. It covers a lot of interesting ground, the most interesting being the arguments for the empty tomb; those arguments have been revised for both better and worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact. I reviewed those particular arguments (from chapters 6 and 8) here, but the whole book is worth going through. There’s a chapter, for example, on the rainbow body phenomenon in Buddhist thought (disappearing bodies), and parallels between stories of people who achieve the rainbow body and the stories of Jesus’s resurrection. Allison mines the fields of psychology and parapsychology in accounting for how humanity copes with bereavement and dead loved ones, while steering clear of any reductionist explanations. With regards to the empty tomb, I think he makes a plausible case both for and against, and I agree with him that the scales tip slightly — ever so slightly — in favor of Jesus’s body being gone from the tomb on Easter morning. Though what that means or implies is still anyone’s guess.

Castaways: The Incredible Narrative of Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca

I never knew much about the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and the last person I expected to steer me in his direction is Pastor Steven Anderson. In a recent sermon, Anderson gave a diatribe on the Spanish conquistador era and recommended Castaways, Alvar’s journal describing, in remarkable detail, his time among the Native Americans from 1528-1536.

For those who don’t know Steven Anderson, he’s a King-James-only fundie who falls on either side of the right-left divide in ways that surprise. He’s a supreme Nazi when it comes to sodomites (they should be executed by the state), but a bleeding heart when it comes to immigrants, even illegal ones (they should all be welcomed with open arms). He’s sexist to the core but abhors racism. He’s a right-wing climate change denier, but a left-wing greenie when it comes to respecting the earth (he’ll rip you to pieces if he sees you littering or not bagging your crap while camping, and he walks to work and eats organic). He’s anti-vax but pro-mask (per Lev 13:45), and throughout the year of 2020 railed from the pulpit against Covidiots who refused to wear masks and distance socially. He condemns Islamic jihadism, but he hates Zionism even more. He thinks Democrats are wicked, but Republicans more so (especially the “fake Fox-News Christians” who fawn over Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck), and that Donald Trump is the “most degenerate man to ever sit the Oval Office”. He loves the Declaration of Independence like any true American, but believes that Thomas Jefferson is burning in hell. He thinks Christopher Columbus is burning in hell too. Both men “removed God’s word” (Rev 22:18-19) — in the Jefferson Bible (Jefferson) and the Book of Prophecies (Columbus), which in turn earns them being “removed from the book of life” and any chance of salvation.

Anderson has a heart for ethnic underdogs, and like Álvar Núñez lends his sympathies to the plight of Native Americans. He makes clear in his sermon that he has no use for myths like the noble savage and advanced native civilizations at the time the Spanish landed. The natives had civilizations to be proud of in the past, but — as Álvar Núñez found out first hand — many tribes had degenerated by the 1500s, living hand to mouth, with no clothes to keep warm, and relying on faith-healers who blew in your face to heal you (about as effective as the western practice of leeching). Álvar shared the miserable plight of these natives, but he came to admire and respect them, such that by the time he reconnected with the Spaniards eight years later he was revolted by the Spanish treatment of the Indians and by western superior attitudes.

Anderson’s sermon-review intrigued me, and so I got the book through interlibrary loan and read it in a couple days. The first quarter is a bit slow, but once Alvar reaches the Isle of Misfortune (chapter 11) it’s a page-turner to the finish line (chapter 38). I’ll review the parts of Alvar’s journal I found interesting and provide citations so that a lot of this comes through in his own words.

The Expedition

To summarize the expedition (see the map to the right): Álvar Núñez began as second in command of a group of 600 men who intended to establish colonies and garrisons in what is today Florida. They landed in Florida in April 1528, and it was a disaster from the start. Six months later they had been emasculated to a force of 242, over half the men killed by disease, nasty weather, and attacks from natives they were trying to conquer.

They fled the Apalachee Bay on September 22, crammed into five makeshift boats, and two of the boats reached Galveston Bay south of Houston on November 6. By now there were only 96 survivors (thanks to hurricanes, thirst, and starvation), and by February there would be only 15, and by the year 1532 there would be four — the final four who would eventually make it back to Spanish civilization (in 1536): Álvar Núñez, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico (Dorantes’ African slave). Incredibly, these four men continued surviving in the wilderness of Texas, and then in Mexico, bonding with various Native tribes (sometimes as their slaves), learning their languages, sharing their atrocious living conditions and being forced to take on the role of faith-healers.

The “Isle of Misfortune” (November 1528 – February 1533)

Álvar’s longest stay was in the place he first arrived — the “Isle of Misfortune” in Galveston Bay — for nearly four and a half years. The isle was most likely what is today Follet’s Island, fifty miles south of Houston. The survivors called it the “Isla de Malhado” (“Island of Misfortune”), as most of them eventually died on it, whether from accidents, starvation, or exposure. They were all emaciated and naked, having lost their clothes and possessions when the boat capsized and was lost upon arrival. Álvar writes that “one could have counted our bones without difficulty, as we looked like the very image of death” (p 42).

The natives’ reaction to the sorry state of these white strangers is moving:

“At the hour of the sunset the Indians, believing that we had not left, came looking for us again. I gave them to understand by signs how a boat had sunk and our members had drowned. When the Indians saw the disaster that had come upon us, and the disaster we were in, with so much ill luck and misery, they sat down among us, and, with the great grief and pity they felt on seeing us in such a desperate plight, all of them began to weep loudly, and so sincerely that they could be heard a long way off, and this lasted for more than half an hour.” (p 42)

Thus did Álvar and his men begin to live on this place that had very little firewood, and houses built of reed mats on oyster shells. The natives had no more clothes than they did, except for some of their women, and there was no chief. According to Álvar’s description, this tribe of Indians valued children above all, made women do the hard work, and hung their elderly out to dry:

“The folk that we found here are tall and handsome; they have no other arms than bows and arrows, in the use of which they are extremely skillful. The men have one nipple pierced from side to side, and some of them have both, and they wear a reed two and one-half handbreadths long and two fingers thick stuck through the hole; they also have their lower lip pierced, and a piece of reed as slender as a half a finger stuck through it.

“The women are the ones who do the hard work. They live on this island from October to the end of February. Their staple food is the roots I have mentioned, gathered underwater in November and December. They have creeks and have no more fish at this time; from then on they eat roots. At the end of February they go elsewhere to seek food, for then the roots begin to sprout and are no longer good. Of all people on earth they are the ones who love their children most and give them the best treatment; and when it happens that someone loses a child, the parents and kinfolk and the whole tribe weep for him, and their lamentation lasts a whole year, for every morning before dawn the parents begin to weep first of all and after them the whole tribe, and they do the same at dawn and at midday; and after they have bewailed them for a year they do funeral honors to the dead child and wash and clean off the soot with which they have covered their bodies. They mourn for all their dead in this way, except for the old, of whom they take no heed, for they say that they have had their time and are of no use to anyone; rather, they occupy space and take food from the children’s mouths… ” (pp 46-47)

He also notes that every man had a wife, but the medicine men (faith-healers) were allowed two or three wives, and that “there is great friendship and harmony among the wives” (p 47). Álvar and his men soon became forced into the roles of medicine men — Christian witch-doctors, as it were — and successful ones apparently:

“On that island they tried to make us into medicine men, without examining us or asking for our credentials, for they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person, and by blowing and using their hands they cast the illness out of them; and they ordered us to do the same and to be of some use. We laughed at it, saying it was a joke and that we did not know how to heal, and because of this they withheld our food until we did as they had told us.” (p 49)

By making the sign of the cross and saying a prayer like the Our Father and blowing on people, he ended up healing many people, and before long, the Natives were asking him to heal many more people and bless their food. Whether his cures came from a placebo effect, coincidence, psycho-somatic causes, or truly miraculous powers is anyone’s guess. It’s like studying the historical Jesus; to me it really doesn’t matter.

From Misfortune into Slavery: February 1533 – September 1534

After almost four and a half years, in early 1533, Álvar left the Galveston Bay area, heading southwest along the Texas coast. He got a shock in the Guadalupe area (red circled area on the right map), when he found three members of his expedition (whom he hadn’t seen since 1529) — Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico (Dorantes’ African slave). They were still alive, but enslaved by the Yguazes and Mareames tribes. Alvar joined them in slavery for a year and a half before they all managed to escape.

The Yguazes and Mareames tribes were closely related and had some unpleasant customs, particularly killing people after they dream of doing so, and automatically killing their daughters at birth:

“They kill even their own children as a result of dreams, and when daughters are born to them they let the dogs eat them and throw them away. The reason they do this, according to them, is that all the Indians in that land are their enemies and they carry on continual warfare with them; and if by any chance their enemies should marry their daughters, these enemies would increase so much that they would conquer them and take them as slaves; and for this reason they preferred to kill their daughters rather than let a possible enemy be born to them. And when these Indians want to marry, they buy wives from their enemies.” (p 60)

They also worked their women brutally hard — more so than the tribes in the Galveston Bay area — giving the women only six hours of rest between day and night. Álvar writes that the men of these tribes are mostly thieves, “for though they get on well among themselves, if one so much as turns his head, even his son or his father will rob him of whatever he can” (p 61). They are also “tremendous liars and drunkards” (ibid).

Álvar suffered no matter what tribe he was living with, but his time in this region was by far the worst stretch of his eight years. Everywhere the tribes starved, but the Yguazes and Mareames suffered so much from hunger that they ate spiders, ant eggs, dirt, wood, deer shit, “and other things I will not mention; and I firmly believe that if there were stones in that land they would eat them” (ibid). He and his three friends (Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico) were abused horribly and tried to escape three times; they were beaten and almost killed each time. Finally, after a year and a half, they managed to escape.

From Slaves to Shamans: September 1534 – May 1535

Fleeing southwest, they came to the Avavares tribe (see the green circled area on the map above), a complete 180 from those they had left. Where the Yguazes and Mareames made slaves of foreigners and abused the hell out of them, the Avavares treated (peaceful) foreigners as honored guests. Just as the natives on the Isle of Misfortune had done, the Avavares brought their sick to Álvar and his men to be healed. Alonso was the one to perform this first faith-healing, but eventually all four of them became witch-doctors:

“On the same night that we arrived, some Indians came to [Alonso] Castillo and told him that they had dreadful pains in their heads, imploring him to cure them; and after he had signed them with the cross and commended them to God, the Indians said that all the pains had left them at that very moment; and they went totheir homes and brought many prickly pears [cacti] and a piece of venison, which was something we could not identify; and as the matter became known among them, many other sick folk came that night to have him cure them, and each one brought a piece of venison, and there were so many of them that we did not know where to put the meat. We offered many thanks to God because His mercy and favors toward us increased daily. And after the cures had been accomplished, they began to dance and make their revels and festivals until dawn; and because of our arrival, the festival lasted three days.” (p 68)

Though they wanted to keep pressing west (to reconnect with Spanish civilization), they stayed with the Avavares for eight months since winter was setting in. Álvar and his men were treated well and honored, but they went through long periods “without a bite to eat, nor able to find anything that could be eaten”. They were still naked as ever, and Alvar writes that “as my feet were bare, the blood ran from them freely” (p 69). But he and his men continued to work healings and became loved by Avavares. When the four men departed the following spring,

“The [Avavares Indians] implored us to remember them, and to pray to God that they might always be well, and we promised them this, and so they departed the happiest men in the world, having given us the best that they had. We had stayed with those Avavares Indians for eight months and reckoned this period by the moon. During all this time the Indians came from many places to seek us and said that we were truly children of the sun. Up to this time Dorantes [Andres] and the black [Estevanico] had not done any healing; but because of the many entreaties we received, coming from many different places to look for us, all of us became medicine men, though I was paramount among us in daring and in attempting any sort of cure.” (p 73)

Fleeing West then South: Across and Down Mexico (May 1535 – March 1536)

From this point on, Álvar, Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico kept fast on the move, staying only a few days in one village before moving to the next. Their general misery continued as before:

“I have already mentioned how we were naked everywhere in this country, and as we were not used to it, we shed our skin like snakes twice a year, and with the sun and wind developed great sores on our chests and backs, which hurt us badly because of the large loads we carried, which were very heavy and caused the cords to cut into our arms. And the land is so rugged that and heavily forested that we often sought firewood in the woods, and when we had finished getting it, blood would run in many places from thorns and thickets we encountered, which broke the skin wherever they touched us. Sometimes it happened that I went for wood in places where, after gathering it had cost me much blood, I could neither carry nor drag it. When I was in these difficulties, my only solace was to think of the Passion of our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and the blood he shed for me…” (pp 75-76)

An interesting point: Whenever they left a village, a group of natives would accompany them to the next village, since escorting travelers was an imperative custom for them — and with a rude twist: upon arrival, the escorts would plunder the village they just came to as payment for their escort services. (If the receiving village had advance notice, the villagers would hide their belongings as best they could.) This was a tolerable custom, because the members of the receiving village would then have a chance to recoup their losses by serving as escorts to the next village; etc.

Their fame as healers grew significantly during the trek across Mexico, to the point of being burdensome:

“All that night the Indians spent in ceremonies and dances, and next morning they brought us all the folk of that village for us to touch and make the sign of the cross over them… All during this part of the journey we were very much hampered by the large number of people who were following us and could not escape from them though we tried, for their eagerness to come and touch us was very great.” (pp 88-89)

The natives usually paid them with the plunder they had just taken, though Álvar and his men usually returned the plunder (when they were able do so without insulting their hosts).

By late 1535 they had crossed westward into what is today Chihuahua and then westward more into Sonora. There (directly south of what is today the Tucson region of Arizona), they stayed for three days in the land of the Pima tribe. They told the Pimas they were searching for Christians (Spaniards), while assuring the natives that they intended to tell their fellow Christians “not to kill Indians, nor to make slaves of them, nor to take them from their lands, nor to do them any other harm at all” (p 107).

Indeed, Álvar was sickened by how terrorized the Pimas and other tribes were due to Spaniard warfare and pillaging. The natives in this region, he writes, were

“… so unhappy that it seemed they wished to die. They brought us blankets that they had hidden for fear of the Christians and gave them to us, and even told us how on many occasions the Christians had entered the land and destroyed and burned the villages and carried off half the men and all the women and children, and that those who had managed to escape from their hands were wandering and in flight. We saw that they were so frightened, not daring to stay in any one place, and that they neither wanted nor were able to sow crops or cultivate the land but rather were determined to let themselves die. And they showed great pleasure in us, though we feared that once we reached the Indians who had a frontier with the Christians, and were making war on them, these others would treat us ill and make us pay for what the Christians had done to them.” (pp 107-108)

So not surprisingly, when Álvar, Alonso, Andres, and Estevanico reconnected with Spaniards, it wasn’t the most joyous reunion. They had lived with the natives for so long that Indians had become people of integrity to them, and not just a race to be subjugated and plundered. Álvar writes:

“… we had many and great altercations with the Christians, because they wanted to make slaves of the Indians we had brought; we were so angry that when we departed we left behind many Turkish-style bows that we had brought and many pouches and arrows; we had great trouble persuading the Indians to return home and to feel safe there and to plant their maize. They wanted nothing but to go with us until they had left us with other Indians, as their custom was, for if they returned without doing this they feared they would die, and because they were with us they feared neither the Christians nor their lances. The Christians were angry at this, and had their interpreter tell them that we were men of their race and that we had been lost for a long time, that we were unlucky and cowardly people, and that they were masters of that land whom the Indians must obey and serve. But the Indians paid little or no heed to what they were told. Rather, they said that the Christians were lying, for we cured the sick and they killed the healthy; and that we had come naked and barefoot and they well dressed and on horses and with lances; and that we did not covet anything, rather we returned everything that they gave us while the Christians stole everything they found and never gave anything to anyone. And so they told all our deeds and praised them, in contrast to the Christians.” (pp 112-114)

After this incident (it happened in March 1536), Álvar and his men managed to send the Indians off in peace, and they traveled with the Spaniards, finally reaching their own civilization in southern Mexico. Álvar’s journal would be published six years later in 1542.

Man of His Times

It should be stressed that there’s no mistaking Álvar for a modern (much less postmodern) multiculturalist. If he came to like and respect the natives more than his own people, he didn’t extend that respect to the sphere of religion. He writes passages like this throughout his journal:

“We told them [the Indians] that there was a man in Heaven whom we called God, who had created heaven and earth, and that we adored him and had him as our Lord, and that we did what he commanded us to do, and that from his hand came all good things; and that if they would do this they would be much the better for it. And we found in them such a disposition to believe… And when all the Indians departed, we commanded them to build churches and place crosses in them, and we had the children of the important chiefs brought to us and had them baptized. And then our captain rendered homage to God, promising not to make or allow any raids nor to take slaves in that land among those people whom we had reassured, and said that he would keep and enact this until His Majesty and the Governor should establish what was most to the service of God… May God our Lord in his infinite mercy resolve that in Your Majesty’s lifetime and under your power and dominion, these people may come to be truly and willingly subject to the true Lord who created and redeemed them.” (pp 105, 119-120)

In this sense, I suppose, Álvar was similar to the modern Pastor Steven Anderson. Of first importance is the salvation of souls, and following the one true faith. After that you can make room for all the justice and equity you need.


Castaways is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and certainly the best one of the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and he survived all this to tell us the gritty details. No other Spaniard was able to do something like that. For a man of his times he was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms. His book is a cultural goldmine for tribes that are otherwise unheard of.

I can understand why this book would appeal to someone like Steven Anderson — an evangelical who takes door-to-door soul-winning as a divine mandate, and believes that without Christ it’s impossible to avoid burning in hell for eternity. But he also believes that accepting Christianity should be a free choice. Anderson hates imperial subjugation and forced conversions; he condemns U.S. military intervention abroad; he believes that all immigrants should we welcomed in America, regardless of ethnicity or creed. He believes in suffering for the cause of Christ, and Álvar Núñez is a supreme model of that. For myself, I admire Álvar for his integrity and compassion, not to mention his determination to survive. I would have given up the ghost quite early, without any grace for my hosts.

How the Clues Unfold in Enola Holmes 2

I already explained why Enola Holmes 2 is a much better film than its predecessor. Here I outline how the clues unfold. My gift to those who complain that it’s sometimes hard to follow how Enola puts the pieces together.

1. Enola is hired by Bessie Chapman to find her older sister Sarah. While searching the Chapman house, Enola

  • finds in the trash a paper fragment with the date “12 March” written on it
  • learns (from Bessie) that Sarah’s job was at the Lyons Match Factory, and that the foreman accused of Sarah of thieving

2. Given the thieving accusation, Enola proceeds to the factory, where she breaks into the boss’s office. Inside the office she

  • sees old match models with red tips instead of white;
  • sees ripped pages from the register and concludes that Sarah stole these papers;
  • overhears a discussion of high-ranking people who are panicking about someone stealing from them and extorting them (Enola will later learn these people are Henry Lyon the factor owner, William Lyon his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre)

3. Enola is suspicious of Mae (who lives at the Chapman house with Bessie and Sarah), and so follows her at night to the Paragon Theater, where Mae works a second job. At the theater, Enola

  • learns that Sarah also worked a second job here as a stage performer
  • learns that Sarah had a lover who sent her letters, that he was apparently a “wealthy gentleman”, and Enola finds one of the letters with a cryptic poem; the signature is a flower drawing, which Enola thinks is a poppy
  • wonders if Sarah ran away with this man, or from him, or was abducted by him

4. While stalking Tewkesbury the next morning, she deciphers the love poem, which reads “28 Bell Place, Whitetower”. She goes to that address, where she

  • finds the front door ajar and the place inside a mess; on a table is a jar with red powdery material and flies buzzing around inside, and another jar with white powdery material and dead flies inside
  • finds Mae stabbed; Mae dies pointing to a piece of paper in her pocket, with music on it titled “The Truth of the Gods”
  • tells Superintendent Grail that she’s looking for Sarah Chapman, and learns from Grail that he is also looking for Sarah, as she is wanted for theft and blackmail
  • flees the police when they try to arrest her

5. Enola hides at Sherlock’s place, where she

  • learns that Sherlock’s case involves government officials sending money to someone in the system; they are separate filings from five different bank accounts going via the Treasury into one private bank; the five banks are all south of the river with no clear link between them; Sherlock’s theory is that someone is bribing, extorting, or blackmailing his client; he has only one lead: a week before the first money transfer, there was a break-in at the treasury office, by a man in a taper crown hat, who took a document that the treasury office won’t talk about, evidently containing some sensitive information
  • explains to Sherlock the case she has taken on involving Sarah Chapman; she shows him the love poem (he figures the address “28 Bell Place, Whitetower” immediately) and they both suspect that Sarah was kidnapped by this mysterious lover; she also tells him that Grail claimed that Sarah had stolen something and was into blackmail; Sherlock then leaves to investigate Mae’s murder site at 28 Bell Place
  • browses a newspaper and sees an ad for the Match Maker’s Ball that evening, to be hosted by Henry Lyon (the match factory owner) listed at 12 Marchmont Square; she realizes the fragment she found in Sarah’s trash (“12 March”) isn’t a date but this address, and wonders why Sarah would be interested in attending a ball for the wealthy; the newspaper says that Henry Lyon’s eldest son William will be there leading the first dance, and in a flash of intuition she realizes that the flower signature on Sarah’s love poem isn’t a poppy but a sweet William, and she deduces that William Lyon is Sarah’s “wealthy gentleman” lover/abducter, and that’s why she was going to the ball (meanwhile at 28 Bell Place, where Mae was killed, Sherlock finds a taper crown hat hanging on a rack; he looks out the window and sees Lyons Match Factory, and wonders if the factory is the link between the five banks south of the river; he begins to suspect a connection between his case and Enola’s)

6. Enola decides to attend the ball to confront William Lyon. At the ball, she

  • sees the same four people she saw back at the factory meeting room, who were panicking about being robbed and extorted (Henry Lyon the factor owner, William his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre); she tries to talk to William but cannot do so without a chaperone
  • meets a woman named Cicely, who seems to be romantically drawn to Tewkesbury
  • meets Mira Troy, who gives Enola some friendly advice on surviving in a man’s world, and who encourages Enola to pursue her intentions with William
  • asks Tewkesbury to teach her how to dance so she can find the socially acceptable opportunity to speak to William
  • arranges to dance with William, and becomes 100% sure that he is Sarah’s lover/abductor when she compares the “W” from his dance-card signature with the “W” in one of the words in the love poem
  • is arrested and taken away by the police, when waiting in the library for William to come and explain his relationship to Sarah

7. Meanwhile, Sherlock realizes that the blackmailer he is after is “Moriarty”, when he converts the original account number in his money laundering case to its corresponding alphabet of English language.

8. Enola gets thrown into prison, but is rescued by Eudoria (her mother) and Edith; they are chased by the police but end up beating the shit out of them.

9. Enola goes to see Bessie and advises her to leave the home because it’s not safe. While at Bessie’s house she sees red and white powder in some of the plant jars. She

  • learns from Bessie that the factory match tips changed from red to white two years ago, exactly when the “typhus epidemic” started
  • remembers the jars where Mae was killed — the flies that were still alive in the jars with the red powder, and the flies that were dead in the jar with the white powder — and realizes that the powders were the ground product of the old and new match tips
  • sees cheese on the floor with white powder on it, and a dead rat close by, and realizes that Sarah “fed” the rats not because she “had a heart for them” (as Bessie had told her) but because she was trapping them
  • deduces that Sarah had found out the real reason why the factory girls are getting sick and dying — because of the cheap white phosphorus used in the match sticks — and that this is the information that Sarah stole from the factory office

10. Enola rushes to Tewkesbury’s home to share her revelation with him — that Sarah found proof that the phosphorus is killing girls, and the factory owners are trying to cover it up as typhus, and that someone is going to kill Sarah — but Cicely drops by unannounced. Enola hides and Cicely says to Tewkesbury that she needs to speak to him about “a relationship”, and then Tewkesbury tells her to come back at another time. Enola, at first, thinks that Cicely wants to fuck Tewkesbury, and is enraged, but Tewkesbury insists that Cicely’s interests are pure business: at the ball she had told him that she was working on a bill to change factory law in order to fight corruption. Enola then

  • realizes, in a flash of intuition, that Cicely is Sarah and that she and William were indeed in love, planning to expose the people, led by William’s father, who were profiting off the low-grade phosphorus; that’s why William invited Tewkesbury to the ball; he and Sarah needed a Lord’s help to expose the corruption — a lord like Tewkesbury who speaks up for liberal causes

11. Enola and Tewkesbury go to the match factory to find more clues. At the factory Enola encounters Sherlock, who tells her that he believes his case and hers are connected. They find William murdered in the factory meeting room. “Sarah’s love”, says Enola. “My thief in a taper crown hat”, says Sherlock. William is the one who stole a document from the treasury office. Enola

  • suggests that William stole the document not just from the treasury office, but from the office of Lord McIntyre in particular (Sherlock is impressed at her deduction, for McIntyre of course is his employer), and that the document is proof that Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon have been conspiring together (changing the match formula to a cheaper phosphorus to make more profits) and that McIntyre has been secretly profiting from the company
  • suggests also that Lord McIntyre killed William, but Sherlock dismisses that theory, showing how all the clues in the murder room (of Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon’s presence) have been planted by someone to mislead them from the true villain — someone who had just as much to lose with that document being stolen; someone who knows what Lyon and McIntyre are up to and is blackmailing them
  • finds a piece of the same sheet of music that she found on Mae’s dress when she died; Tewkesbury says that “the Truth of the Gods” probably refers to the Paragon Theater, since the top row of seats is called “The Gods”; Enola deduces that the top row of sheet music is a map of the top row of theater seats, and “X” marks the spot of something important

12. Sherlock, Enola, and Tewkesbury go to the Paragon Theatre and search the top row of seats. They

  • find (a) the contract between Lyon and McIntyre that William stole for Sarah; and (b) the papers from the factory register that Sarah stole, which lists the names of all the girls who died from the cheap phosphorus
  • are confronted by Cicely, who reveals herself to be Sarah, as Enola supposed; Sarah explains that she, Mae, and William wanted to expose the factory owners and their associates who profited at the cost of young girls’ lives; and that she needs Tewkesbury’s (a lord’s) help in exposing these monsters
  • are interrupted by several policemen and Superintendent Grail, and a massive fight ensues; Enola ultimately manages to kill Grail
  • are then confronted by Lord McIntyre (who Sherlock summoned), Inspector Lestrade, and Mira Troy; Sherlock realizes that Mira Troy is Moriarty and that she has been the one blackmailing McIntyre and Henry Lyon; when William stole the contract, that threatened to cut off her money train, so she hired Grail to retrieve the document; when she learned that Sarah, William, and Mae were on the verge of exposing the factory, she ordered Grail to kill them all to keep her blackmailing scheme under wraps; Mae was killed first, then William, and Sarah was hunted by Grail in vain; Troy is arrested and taken away, but Lord McIntyre burns the evidence to avoid further suspicion against him

13. The next day, Sarah, Bess, and Enola ignite a strike at the factory, revealing the real reason for the girls dying. Tewkesbury gets McIntyre arrested for being an accomplice to Lyon’s activities. Sherlock sees in the morning news that Mira Troy has escaped police custody. Enola sets up a new office at Edith’s shop.



Would Mr. Tumnus have been a rapist?

Probably. Our recycled myths tend to handle kids with kid gloves.

The picture on the right was posted in a Reddit thread — a supposed Tolkien quote that’s been paraphrased second-hand. I like it though, and it may as well have been written by Tolkien. He didn’t like sanitized myths and thought children were made of sterner stuff. It was one of his many problems with Narnia.

The quote comes from Joe Christopher in Mythlore, and the article may be read here. Another helpful article is Josh Long’s “Disparaging Narnia” (2013), the preview of which may be read here:

It is well-known that Tolkien disliked The Chronicles of Narnia, but what were his reasons? They appear to be complex and manifold. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have only one (published) statement from Tolkien on the matter, and it remains ambiguous at best. Writing in 1964, he observes, “It is sad that ‘Narnia’ and all that part of C.S.L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his” (Letters 352). This tells us almost nothing. My intention in this article is to come to terms with why Tolkien disliked Narnia. Many reasons have been offered, but it is not always easy to separate the facts from the fancy; more often than not, the lines between the two have been blurred. I will begin by reconsidering the secondhand accounts of Roger Lancelyn Green, Nan C.L. Scott, and George Sayer; Tolkien evidently told each of them at different times why he disliked Narnia. Second, I will defend Humphrey Carpenter’s accounts in Tolkien and The Inklings, although several scholars have called them into question. Finally, I wish to introduce and analyze an unpublished letter in which Tolkien briefly discusses Narnia.

The most well-known secondhand account is certainly Green’s. In 1974, he published a joint biography with Walter Hooper entitled C.S. Lewis: A Biography. In it, Green recalls that after Lewis had shared the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with Tolkien, “who had disliked it intensely,” Lewis then read it to Green. Shortly after, Tolkien saw Green and remarked, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s [Lewis’s] children’s story. It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” (qtd. in Green and Hooper 241). (1) Green provides no explanation of what Tolkien meant; however, this has not prevented critics from interpreting Tolkien’s comment.

Joe R. Christopher observes that Nymphs and their Ways is one of the books which appears on Mr. Tumnus’s bookcase in Chapter II of The Lion. According to Christopher, Tolkien was bothered by this scene because Lewis was distorting and sentimentalizing the myth (“Narnian Exile” 41). He suggests, “[I]f Lucy had really met a faun–that is, a satyr–the result would have been a rape, not a tea party” (Christopher, C.S. Lewis 111). Hence, the reason Tolkien alludes to The Love-life of a Faun–a book that doesn’t actually appear on Mr. Tumnus’s bookcase but is absurd all the same. In short, Lewis failed to maintain the mythical archetype of fauns as lustful.

Christopher’s argument had established that Tolkien’s dislike of Narnia evolved in stages, first against Lewis’s distorted/sentimentalized mythology in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second against the allegory of the Narnian series as a whole. Long’s article considers Christopher’s argument, and also those of Green, Scott, and Sayer, to argue more comprehensively, that Tolkien disliked Narnia for many reasons, especially these:

  • Lewis wasn’t a serious world-builder, and often incompetent in using mythical archetypes. Tumnus is indeed a good example of this. A faun meeting a little girl wouldn’t have been a pleasant encounter as it is in Lewis’s story.
  • Lewis was into allegory, but myth has more to offer than that.
  • Lewis cranked out his stories fast and the result shows — they have a superficial feel to them.
  • Lewis actually borrowed a lot from Tolkien.

Long supports these contentions from things said by Tolkien himself, and the article is worth going through.

As for Mr. Tumnus, it might be a fun project to try rewriting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and make it more Tolkien-friendly. Though I doubt it’s possible. Too much needs reworking; it would probably end up killing the patient.


Enola Holmes 2: A Surprising Improvement for Sherlock’s Sister

The Match Girls Strike, led by Sarah Chapman, was the first ever industrial action taken by women for women. It improved their working conditions forever.

Those words play over the closing credits for Enola Holmes 2, which I enjoyed considerably more than the first Enola film. (Apparently I’m not alone: on Rotten Tomatoes the first has a 70% audience approval, while the second has an 85% audience approval.) Don’t mistake me, it’s still the same animal — a silly comedy at heart — but accepted on its own terms, it entertains in a way that the first film doesn’t, and on a variety of levels. The historical backdrop of the Match Girls Strike (1888) is done justice without sermonizing or politicizing the film into something tiresome.

For those who don’t know, the strike occurred in the Bryant & May Match Factory of London, where women and girls suffered horrible working conditions — long working hours for dirt pay, which was often docked even more for petty reasons like being a few seconds late or using the bathroom. They were also exposed to the health dangers of white phosphorus (which the matches were dipped in), and many of the girls suffered a form of necrosis called “phossy jaw.” The factory owners suppressed the health hazard by claiming that a typhus epidemic was going around, deliberately refusing to report phosphorous poisoning among the women and girls. One of the workers, Sarah Chapman, finally organized a walkout: 1400 women and girls took to the streets to protest their working conditions, and the strike contributed to the growth of the union movement in England.

Enola Holmes 2 is set three years before the historical strike (in 1885, for whatever reason) and uses the Match Girls event to frame a mystery — Enola’s first mystery that she is hired to solve. The film starts with her setting up shop to be a private detective like her brother, and no one takes her seriously (the prospective clients laugh at the sight of a young girl detective, many of them seeking business with Sherlock instead), but eventually a young girl comes in and hires Enola to find her missing sister. The young girl is Bessie Chapman, who works at the match factory with her Sarah, and Sarah has mysteriously vanished. Enola takes the case, and before she knows it becomes the prime suspect in a murder of one of the factory girls. The thrill ride never lets up, and as you might expect it becomes pretty ridiculous at times, especially when Enola is thrown in jail but her mother and Edith break her out with explosives — the most eye-rolling absurdity I’ve seen in any film this year. Admittedly, this event is followed by one of the best and most hilarious scenes which sees Enola, her mother, and jujitsu-master Edith beating the shit out of police officers to the blazing chorus of Handel’s Messiah (the scene can be watched here). Again, if you accept the comedy on its own terms, Enola Holmes 2 has, for the most part, a tight and compelling enough plot to keep you hooked.

Which is more than I can say for Enola Holmes 1. The only thing that film had going for it was Millie’s performance, and it’s just as good this time around, as we see her play the opposite character of Eleven from Stranger Things — wildly uninhibited, overconfident in herself and her abilities, and thoroughly unable to shut up. But now the focus is on the main mystery, not Enola’s family baggage, which means that Sherlock (and briefly, Enola’s mother Eudoria, for the prison break) supplement the story with substance rather than dominate it with melodrama. And Sherlock is used well this time, as he and his sister come to realize that the cases they are each working on intersect; it doesn’t even feel that contrived.

The blend of humor and intrigue hits a high point at the ball which Enola attends to smoke out a suspect (who turns out to be virtuous, not villainous, and eventually ends up dying for it), which she does by arranging to dance with him — a difficult task, as practically everyone at the party thinks she should be chaperoned as a minor, and she doesn’t even know how to dance on top of that problem. This leads to her quasi-boyfriend Tewkesbury (whom she denies her obvious affection for) giving her a dance lesson in a bathroom, and the relationship between the two is handled much better than in the first film, where the romantic tension was too overwrought.

It says something when a film can exploit themes of oppression and sexism while never losing sight of the most important parts (artistry and entertainment), and Enola Holmes 2 milks those themes just right, even to the grand reveal of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis. Moriarity is the black woman, Mira Troy, who — much like Enola — weaponizes Victorian sexism to become an unseen or underrated force. Men don’t take her seriously, and pay for that mistake. I’m sure we’ll see more of Mira Troy in Enola Holmes 3 (of course there will be a third) and I’m looking forward to it. Yes folks, I’m actually warming to this series, and I much enjoyed seeing Sherlock’s sister having an impact on the English union movement.

Jason Carver’s Satanic Panic

In my recent marathon of Stranger Things 4 (celebrating my birthday with a friend) I was struck by the levels of irony in Jason’s town hall speech. This speech follows the slaying of Patrick, which Jason witnessed first hand.

Jason: “Last night I saw things… things I can’t explain. Things the police don’t want to believe. Things that I don’t want to believe myself. But I know what I saw. And I’ve come to accept an awful truth: these murders are ritualistic sacrifices. We’ve all heard about how Satanic cults are spreading to our country like some disease, and Eddie Munson is the leader of one of these cults. A cult that operates right here in Hawkins. The mall fire. All those unexplained deaths over the years. Some people, they say our town is cursed, they just don’t know why, but now we do. Now we know.” [Takes out a flier and holds it up.] “They call themselves ‘Hellfire.’ ”

Erica: “That’s bullshit! The Hellfire isn’t a cult. It’s a club for nerds.”

Jason: “A club… a harmless club! That’s what they want you to think. But it’s a lie. A lie designed to conceal the truth. And now this cult is protecting its leader, Eddie. Hiding him, allowing him to continue his rampage. Last night I became overcome with this feeling of hopelessness. Then I remembered Romans 12:21: ‘Do not be overcome by evil. But overcome evil with good.’ And God knows there’s good in this town. So much good — it’s in this room! It’s in this room, right here! Right now! So I came here today humbly, to ask for your help. To join me in this fight. Let us cast out this evil and save Hawkins. Together!”

The takeaway from this scene is clear: Jason is a jerk, who in defiance of police authority instigates a vigilante manhunt. He’s a stand-in for the Christian fundies of the ’80s, who claimed that Dungeons & Dragons is an evil game that calls forth demonic activity, and encourages ritualistic sacrifice. He’s a fanatic who gets worse as the show progresses.

What often goes unmentioned is how right Jason is. He indeed knows what he saw: Patrick being levitated into the air, his bones snapped and eyes gouged out by an invisible force. It’s clear that Patrick wasn’t killed by a human being or an animal, which means that Chrissy and Fred (the earlier victims) weren’t either. Having witnessed Patrick’s inexplicable slaughter, Jason is quite rational to assume that a demonic force of some kind is the serial killer (Vecna is for all intents and purposes a “demon”), and he’s absolutely right that these murders are ritualistic sacrifices. Four sacrifices are necessary for Vecna to escape his mental prison and start the apocalypse.

And while Jason is wrong about Eddie and the Hellfire Club, his accusations are again entirely reasonable. After all, Chrissy was killed in Eddie’s trailer, and Eddie has been a fugitive ever since, hiding from the police. We as audience members know the truth of Eddie, but if I were in Jason’s shoes — if I had a girlfriend who was killed and broken apart hideously in the home of a guy she had never associated with, and that guy subsequently vanished — he would be my number one suspect. And if I later saw a teammate of mine killed in the same fashion (in close proximity to Eddie, my number one suspect), and this time I saw the killing as it happened (by an invisible force), then I would, very logically, put two and two together: that Eddie Munson is summoning the evil force that is killing people… and for that matter, Eddie’s entire Hellfire Club could be involved in the ritualistic evil.

We’re supposed to see officers Powell and Calahan as rational for scorning ideas about the supernatural and ritualistic murder, just as we’re meant to disdain Jason and his buddies for fanning the flames of “Satanic Panic” paranoia. The twist is that those paranoias aren’t so irrational in the context of a Stranger Things drama. Jason is an asshole, but his deductions are 100% logical and at least 50% correct. He’s wrong to endorse vigilantism, though you can hardly blame him for being frustrated with the police who refuse to give his testimony about Patrick any credence.

The Duffers are good with ironic twists that don’t let the audience off the hook so easily, and I admire the irony behind Jason.


TV Watch List (2022)

Consider this a service if you’ve been missing out on TV and need something to watch. This year has been a good one.
1. Stranger Things (Season 4). 4 ½ stars. We haven’t had a good season of Stranger Things since the second in 2017, and so a lot was riding on this. The Duffers certainly redeemed themselves. There’s a return to season-1 Stockholm drama, with Eleven and her abusive Papa; the Silo Lab arc from episodes 5-8 is actually my favorite part of the whole series. As in season 2, friends are down and distant. Max is guilt-ridden and suicidal; El is miserable, bullied by peers in the present and past; Lucas is into sports and less into Mike and Dustin’s ideas of fun. The emotionally vulnerable die as they daydream. Vecna’s killings, sadistic as they are, are but a means to an end: to create enough gates to start the apocalypse. There is admittedly some annoying season-3ish comedy that creeps in on occasion, and some contrived plotting with the Russian prison drama, but for the most part Stranger Things 4 is a smashing, successful return to form. It doesn’t reattain the perfect heights of seasons 1 and 2, but what it does get it right, it gets so right, that there are long stretches (especially during episodes 4, 5, 7, and 8) when you think it really is the best season. (Netflix)

2. Cabinet of Curiosities. 4 ½ stars. Best avoided by anyone with a heart condition, this artistic horror anthology pulls no punches, and there’s not a single dud among the eight episodes. That being said, some are more excellent than others, and two in particular — “Autopsy” and “Pickman’s Model” — are good enough to be judged instant classics. “Pickman’s Model” is all the more surprising for being a Lovecraft story; adaptations of his work tend to fail, but this one has the perfect mood and atmosphere and is genuinely terrifying. Guillermo del Toro introduces each episode like Hitchcock did in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he wrote two of the stories. What can I say, I was astonished by how good these vicious tales are. I’ve seen 16 rankings of the episodes, and the rankings I most agree with are the ones at Slate and Murphy’s Multiverse (which are nearly identical). (Netflix)

Cobra Kai: The 50 Episodes Ranked | The Busybody
3. Cobra Kai (Season 5). 4 ½ stars. The karate season that finally gives Daniel LaRusso his much deserved story arc. He is brought down so low in this season, and it’s great to see him pulled up by (and teaming up with) his old bullies Johnny and Chozen in order to bring down Terry Silver. This isn’t to say the kids don’t get good story arcs; Robby and Miguel finally make amends, as do Tory and Sam. But the tone has shifted significantly, and more blood is spilled in this season than the previous four combined. One critic has even said that the season finale felt more like Game of Thrones than Cobra Kai; the fighting is that vicious. I never thought I’d see the day when the baddies of Karate Kid (Johnny), Karate Kid 2 (Chozen) and Karate Kid 3 (Mike Barnes) all come together for the first time and fight alongside Daniel for a good cause. (Netflix)

What time is Severance episode 7 on Apple TV+ tonight?
4. Severance (Season 1). 4 ½ stars. This is a bleak slow-burner that mightily rewards patience. The premise involves people who choose to live two lives, a work self (the “Innie”) and the self that exists apart from work (the “Outie”), neither having any clue about the other except that it exists. This allows people to literally forget everything about work when they leave the office; all they know about their lives is how they spend their free time in the early mornings, evenings, and week-ends. That’s fine and grand for the Outie self. The problem is that once they go to work, all they remember is how they spend their work lives — utter hell for the Innie self, who knows and experiences nothing more than the most boring routines of corporate drudgery. The finale is so well executed that it had me holding my breath at intervals for 15 minutes straight. (Apple TV+)

House Of The Dragon's Awkward Family Dinner Is Everything That Makes The Show So Good
5. House of the Dragon (Season 1). 4 ½ stars. Compared to Rings of Power (on which see way down below), this fantasy series is a masterpiece, and the last four episodes in particular are as good as the best episodes from Game of Thrones. “Driftmark” (the seventh) sets a new bar for twisting in the knife, with the royal kids maiming each other for power, and Alicent going so far as to attack Rhaenyra openly. “The Tides of War” (the eighth) has some of the best cinematic drama I’ve seen in ages — from Viserys’s surprise entry and painfully dragging himself to the Iron Throne, to his last supper with his family members before he dies. I went into this series expecting a barely above average spin-off, and was very pleasantly surprised. (HBO Max)

For All Mankind Season 3 Episode 8: Release date & time?
6. For all Mankind (Season 3). 4 stars. This season revolves around the mission to Mars and the first woman president who is also lesbian; in the alternate timeline of For All Mankind, she beats Bill Clinton in the 1992 election. The show writers are doing an excellent job imagining the space race going way beyond 1975, and there is every sign of it continuing into the 21st century with more seasons. I hope they’ll reach Jupiter and the moons of Saturn. This season wasn’t the same without Gordo and Tracy, and didn’t attain the dramatic heights of the previous two seasons, but the quality in storytelling continues to be top notch, and I admire the way it never seems like science fiction. The mission to Mars looks as realistic as the missions to the moon in the previous seasons. (Apple TV+)

Better Call Saul 6x03 Ending Scene "Nacho's death" Season 6 Episode 3 HD "Rock and Hard Place" - YouTube
7. Better Call Saul (Season 6). 4 stars. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this series, and most of the hate goes to the first three seasons which were dominated by the presence of Chuck. He was an utterly insufferable character to watch on screen. Had the show writers not (finally!) killed him off, I would not have proceeded to season 4. But they did and the show got better… and better… and best of all with the sixth and last season. Now everything comes together: Nacho is killed, poor Howard is killed, Mike is in top form, Gus outwits the Salamancas, and Jimmy (Saul), in the end, atones for his crimes, as Kim does penance as well. I’ll miss the Breaking Bad universe, though I’m glad that Vince Gilligan is moving on to something different. (AMC)

Star Wars' comes to Scotland in 'Andor' episode 4
8. Andor (Season 1). 4 stars. I’ve become convinced that Star Wars is much better suited to the TV series format than the movie. Aside from Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One, none of the Star Wars movies are that impressive, and most are downright cheesy. But series like The Mandalorian and Andor (though not Obi-Wan Kenobi) are making Star Wars into a surprisingly worthy franchise. In the case of Andor, it’s the prequel to Rogue One, and like that top-notch installment does a good job of making you really fear the Empire. The films were caught up in mythological villains and heroes rather than showing how ordinary people become part of a revolution against torture and tyranny. Andor is as gritty and realistic as Rogue One, and, speaking as a Star Wars hater, I recommend it. (Note: As I write this, nine of the twelve episodes have been released. So my final ranking is subject to change.) (Disney+)

The Dropout (TV Mini Series 2022) - IMDb
9. The Dropout. 4 stars. This true-crime drama of a blood-testing device reminded me of the Jesus-Wife fragment. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t believe what I was watching, that so many people were fooled by Elizabeth Holmes for so long, even experts turning a blind eye to the obvious flags. This scam artist was finally indicted in 2018 for defrauding investors, doctors, and patients; found guilty in January of 2022; and this month (in November) she will be sentenced, perhaps up to 20 years in prison. To think that her shenanigans started way back in 2004… it boggles the mind. If this series depicts her accurately, as many reviewers claim, then she deserves to rot. (Hulu)

Here's What Julia Garner Expects From Ruth In Ozark Season 4
10. Ozark (Season 4). 3 ½ stars. Ozark had a good run but this was the season to stop. It had great moments, lackluster moments, and a finale that was honest but could have been more creative. In the end, I believe it goes down as a slightly above average drama of ordinary people caught up in the chaos of crime. Nothing like Breaking Bad. Walter White’s fall was epic. Marty and Wendy Byrde’s fall is compelling, though the tragedy is less cutting, perhaps because the entire family ends up drinking the kool-aid. They have each others’ backs to the end, unlike Walter White, who was reviled and cursed and everyone, family and friends alike. (Netflix)

The English (TV Series 2022– ) - IMDb
(?) The English. This western starts next week (Nov 11), and it looks impressive. If it turns out as good as it looks, I’ll rank it on this list before the end of the year. The synopsis: “It takes the core themes of identity and revenge to tell a uniquely compelling parable on race, power, and love. An aristocratic Englishwoman, Lady Cornelia Locke, and a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout, Eli Whipp, come together in 1890 middle America to cross a violent landscape built on dreams and blood. Both of them have a clear sense of their destiny, but neither is aware that it is rooted in a shared past. They must face increasingly terrifying obstacles that will test them to their limits, physically and psychologically.” (Amazon Prime)

How The Rings of Power Evolved Galadriel & Elrond's Friendship from Tolkien – United States KNews.MEDIA
x. Rings of Power (Season 1). 1 star. An utter sleep-inducing waste. And I did doze through a lot of it, and cursed the screen when I was awake. The most succinct review is this one, and I don’t need to add anything beyond it: “This is badly made TV with a nonsensical story built on wild coincidences, contrived plotlines and a blatant disregard for the various building blocks that make any story complete: logical character choices, a sense of time and place, and narrative tension—not to mention an overly large cast of mostly forgettable and uncharismatic characters, some wholly made up for the show and others changed entirely as to be almost unrecognizable. In every way that truly matters, The Rings Of Power fails from the writing to the acting to the presentation. It fails as an adaptation, neither enriching Tolkien’s work nor remaining true to it. It fails as a good fantasy, giving us generic tropes and melodrama rather than blazing new ground. And it fails as a compelling story, filled with cheap mystery boxes and unsurprising ‘twists.’ So how bad has this show dropped the proverbial palantir?” (Amazon Prime)