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September Books

Well, my wife and son were away visiting family for most of this month so I was able to catch up on a bit of pleasure reading (not to mention thesis writing!).  Here are the latest:
1. The Political Theology of Paul by Jacob Taubes.
There is always something interesting about reading so-called ‘outsiders’ perspectives on Paul (i.e. the perspectives of those who fall outside of the narrow guild of New Testament and Pauline studies).  Often, I think, such ‘outsiders’ are able to grasp essential points that many ‘insiders’ miss because of their own rootedness within particular traditions and their own dogmatic upbringings.  So, coming to Taubes, I think that his lectures on Paul are very close to the mark — certainly on the political level, where he reads Paul has dramatically and subversively political — and the way he reads Paul in dialogue with voices like Barth, Schmitt, Nietzche, and Freud is very enlightening (I believe that it was also Taubes who was responsible for leading people like Badiou and then Zizek to look at Paul).
I also appreciate the way in which Taubes presents his material — he speaks with humility, brushes off a lot of issues that are unimportant to him, and frequently employs humour… but does all of this in a way that still cuts deeply into the discussion of Paul.  I would recommend this book to anybody who is interested in the nexus between Paul, politics, and philosophy.
2. The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God by Matt Woodley (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).
Many thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy!
This year I decided to begin reading some more popular-level Christian books, just to get a feel for what is going on out there.  As a part of doing that, I read Holy Fools by Matt Woodley and was happily surprised by how good it was (see my review here).  Consequently, I came to this book (another popular-level book) with expectations I would not have had otherwise.
Unfortunately, they were disappointed.  While I continue to appreciate Woodley’s tone and the way in which he raises difficult questions around matters like godforsakenness, I found that most of his suggestions or solutions lacked the depth I had found in his prior book.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad that Woodley honestly confronts the experience of being abandoned by God, encountering nothing but silence from God, and lamenting and crying out to (and, perhaps, even against) God, in light of these things.  I imagine that a good many Christians may find this to be liberating (as I did, the first time I started to explore the notions of godforsakenness and lament).  However, when compared to Woodley’s other book, a lot of the content contained in this one felt… fluffy.
Anyway, just to give y’all an idea of the content of this book, Woodley explores twelve different models of prayer.  Prayer as: (1) guttural groaning; (2) skin, trees, blood, bread and wine; (3) desperation; (4) mystery; (5) absence; (6) an argument with God; (7) a long, slow journey; (8) dangerous activity; (9) paying attention; (10) feeling God’s heartbeat; (11) love; and (12) praying.  Ultimately, of course, his goal is that the reader would journey into the act of prayer itself (instead of just reading about prayer) and this is surely a good thing.
3. Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy.
Many critics have described Blood Meridian as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece — indeed, as one of the masterpieces of American literature.  I have not read enough McCarthy to know if it his best work, but I certainly agree that it is a great novel, and amongst the best that I have read.  There is something about McCarthy’s voice that entrances me.  I find it difficult to describe… some sort of apocalyptic blend of both the violence and beauty of the world, yet presented in such a way that one never feels as though judgment is being passed on any of it.  As if to say: “This is the world in which we live… it’s a bloody clusterfuck, but it’s goddamn beautiful.”
Anyway, Blood Meridian tells the story of a teenager called ‘the kid’ who joined the Glanton Gang in mid-nineteenth century America — a gang of low-lifes and brutes who made money by scalping indians for the bounties offered by the local civic authorities.  Prominent amongst this group of fellows is ‘the judge’ — a fellow of mythic proportions.  Thus, as the gang travels through small towns, deserts, mountains and wastelands — with one violent episode chasing the heels of another — the focus remains mostly upon the (unspoken and unread) thoughts of the kid and the actions and pontifications of the judge.  Really, though, no review or summary is going to do this story any justice — go read the book.
4. Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset.
After thoroughly enjoying Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, I thought I would continue reading her writings.  Gunnar’s Daughter is a much shorter and, in some ways, terser, story that mirrors the themes and writing style of the great Icelandic Sagas.  It is the story of Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, how she is courted and then raped by Ljot Gissurson, how she then bears a child, and what follows after.
As with Undset’s larger trilogy, Gunnar’s Daughter is full of fascinating historical details and vividly portrays a world that is now lost and gone.  Furthermore, the characters — their passions, their longings, and the ways in which they self-destruct — strike me as a very real portrayal of people as I imagine them to be.  This is recommended reading.
5. Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.
It has been a very long time since I’ve read any poetry, and it has been even longer since I’ve enjoyed reading poetry (when I was younger I really wanted to like reading poetry because I thought it would make me ‘cultured’ but I finally had to give up because it almost always bored me out of my mind).  However, a friend of mine had recently sent me a couple of excerpts from Rilke, and they almost knocked the wind out of me.  So, I decided to go out and pick up a Rilke book.  I’m glad I did.  I find his imagery and voice to be… I don’t know… apocalyptic… devastating and beautiful.  Here are a couple of samples:
Do you still remember: falling stars, how
they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes–had we so many?–
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every look upward was wedded
to the swift hazard of their play,
and the heart felt itself a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance–
and was whole, as though it would survive them!

You don’t know nights of love? Don’t
petals of soft words float upon your blood?
Are there no places on your dear body
that keep remembering like eyes?

6 & 7. Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, Vols. 1 & 3, edited by Danzig Baldaev et al.
Over the last little while I have become increasingly fascinated by the multitude of subcultures and lifestyles that people inhabit — from people who are into ‘Live Action Role Playing’ (cf. this movie), to guys who develop personal relationships with sex dolls (cf. this movie), there appear to be endless alternate worlds in which people live and, ultimately, find their deepest sense of identity and value.  Anyway, as I’ve been digging around in this things, I happened to stumble onto Alix Lambert’s documentary on Russian prison tattoos (cf. ‘The Mark of Cain‘).  What I found interesting about this art, is that the images tattooed onto the bodies of the inmates, actually often told their whole life stories, and their entire criminal history — but did so through a series of symbols and (often) through the coded use of religious iconography (where the number of towers on a cathedral represent the number of terms or years served, where a virgin with child means ‘I have been a thief since birth’, where Jesus on the cross represents ‘the king of thieves’, and so on).  This led me to do some more research into this (now pretty much dead) subculture, and led me to Bardaev’s encyclopedia.  The set contains many beautiful pictures, hundreds of sketches, a couple essays on the topic, as well as several stories related to the life lived by the inmate who sported the tattoo at hand.  If you are interested in seeing a sample of the pictures contained in this book you can click this link (but be warned, although some of the tattoos are fascinating or beautiful, a good many are extremely vulgar, sexual, and violent).

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  1. Really fascinating stuff on the tattoos. I’m interested in some of the things that keep cropping up in the different designs . . . but perhaps that’s what the encyclopedia’s for. Reminds me of the movie Eastern Promises (, particularly when Viggo has to sit nude in front of the mob leaders so they can “read” his tattoos.

  2. Robert!
    Good to hear from you — hope all is well.
    Cronenberg has stated that Lambert’s documentary played a very formative role in the making of Eastern Promises, so it’s not surprising that you are reminded of that movie. I haven’t seen it, but in real life if an inmate could not prove that he deserved to wear this-or-that tattoo then it would either be cut or burned off of him (or, just as often, he would be killed).

  3. Blood Meridian is an amazing book. After I read it I found out that there was an actual Glanton gang and an actual Judge Holden upon which the characters in the book were loosely based. I go back and forth as to whether the Judge or Anton Chigurh is the most disturbing character that McCarthy created.

  4. Although I have seen No Country for Old Men, I’m only just reading the book now. The judge is pretty hard to beat as far as characters go, but I’ll see if Chigurh comes close.

    • I feel like the Judge is more twisted somehow, but Chigurh is relentless and a kind of agent of fate. The line “can’t stop what’s coming” could be Chigurh’s motto.

  5. For years I have found an odd sense of inspiration from those Russian Prison Tattoos.
    The rebellion and self expression…very moving stuff…

  6. It’s hard to choose which between the Judge and Chigurh, though I certainly found Blood Meridian to be more entertaining all around.
    Chigurh, I think, is an Adornian twist on enlightenment. A highly intelligent master of his surroundings. The Judge, on the other hand, is tied into a cosmology – he is the embodiment of polemos, a la Schelling.


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