Eden Gardens

The community was advertised as the best landscaped in south Florida.

Not only did the faux-Moroccan gate provide security from nonexistent intruders and drug-dealers, but every condo nestled in a tropical array of bougainvillea, hibiscus (coral pinks and striated reds), fiddleleaf figs, palmetto and assorted ferns.

Adam Feinstein loved the fact that the small yard was mown on a weekly basis by a Mexican boy named Donnie who spoke no English but smiled broadly and sang as he raked the shorn blades into neat piles.

Promptly at 4.45 on Thursdays, when the Feinstein lawn had been cut, Adam waited on the front patio with a large glass of iced tea for Donnie. The Association didn’t allow tipping, but a libation of iced tea or water was permitted. It made Adam feel that he had contributed something to the process.

The Association dealt with everything, trimmed everything, fixed everything (outside) and arranged to have things fixed (inside) by calling plumbers and electricians, even drywall specialists and exterminators, when any problem arose.

You didn’t even have to pay on the spot. It came as an itemized addition to Association dues.

Eve Feinstein loved the fact that no pets of any description over thirteen pounds were allowed. She had had a cat once, as a girl. She let it run away after it scratched her. And she lived in mortal terror of dogs. She could not understand the bond between human beings and their pets and would cross streets to avoid being sniffed, eyed or followed by anyone’s animal.

Eve Feinstein was not much better with human beings. She had not married Adam until she was thirty five. They had decided that they had a relationship based on disliking the same things, mainly the same people.

After thirty years their marriage was like two steel marbles rolling around in a matchbox. They traveled in the same direction whenever life tilted and ended up in the same corner. They did not look at each other anymore. They looked at the TV together. Their souls had long since retreated deep into their bodies, so deeply that nothing peered out from within.

In her first six months at Eden Gardens Eve Feinstein had only seen one violation of the Pet Rule–Mrs. Schopke’s poodle Fritz, who bolted the car when Mrs Schopke paused to retrieve a bag of cookies and a can of Old Milwaukee that had fallen from her grocery sack.

The dog had gone yipping wildly around the circular drive looking for a permanent escape route, stopping only long enough to water every bench and scrub oak on the property, including the one closest to Eve Feinstein’s driveway. He had been detained by Donnie and returned to his sobbing owner.

“My God, Fritz, I could have lost you, schnuepel,” Mrs. Schopke cried.

On that occasion, one call from Mrs Feinstein to the Association President, Daniel Weingarten, was all it took for a letter of reprimand to be sent to Sophia Schopke.

“She needs to be more careful,” said Eve to her husband at dinner.

“I don’t have to lift a finger here,” said Adam Feinstein a bit non-responsively. “My God, this is heaven.”

“Rules are rules,” said Eve, smiling at the thought of Sophia Schopke opening an official letter and taking a rolled up newspaper to Fritz for his indiscretion.

They sighed a mutual sigh, reposing in the thought that buying their condo in this paradise of flowers and rules was the best investment of their life. No snow to shovel. No curbside slush in March. No leaves to rake, drains to plunge, leaking roofs to repair.

***

It was Saturday morning. Eve and Adam Feinstein had just come from a study circle where the rabbi’s talk had been “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”

Rabbi Jerry had been in summer stock productions of Broadway musicals and liked to give his lessons the titles of show-stoppers. Eve smiled and sang all the way home, getting the lyrics out of order. Adam corrected her. “You shouldn’t say ‘now‘,” he said, pronouncing it “neow,” which is how Eve pronounced it. “The song doesn’t say ‘neow’.”

I’m just a victim of time, Obsolete in my prime
Out-of-date and outclassed, by my past”
Eve sang lustily.

When she did, she thought of Rabbi Jerry. Tall, elegant, bespectacled, learned, funny–gorgeous neckties–always. If she was only ten years younger, she used to think, maybe twenty, this was a man whose head she would like to turn, maybe have coffee with. But then she would feel guilty. And then she would think about his long fingers and manicured nails. Why shouldn’t she think about him?

Still, she thought, a woman her age shouldn’t have feelings like that. And there was poor Adam, poor, dull, predictable, overweight Adam with his stubby fingers and colon issues, whose life had shrunk to the act of offering a Mexican boy a glass of tea on Thursdays.

Adam punched the access code and the gate opened, barely enough to let the car through. It needed adjusting again. Pat Gibson kept nicking it with her bumper because it didn’t open fast enough, and Pat at 89 was nearly blind.

Adam plodded to the front door, swift to be clear of Eve’s dramatic finish to the song. Eve stayed behind and stretched, just like she did after any car trip.

Her attention turned to the dense foliage that surrounded the house. At times like this she made a face. It was the face of judgment and registered instant accord or disapproval. She drew her lips down in grumpy old man fashion and said “puh.”

It meant “This won’t do.”

She was thinking there were definite signs of brown on the fiddleleaf figs and even the crotons looked dispirited, and since it was Donnie’s day off, what could it hurt if she unrolled the hose and gave them a drink?

After all, there was no specific rule against watering plants, was there? Just rules about dogs, noise, keeping your car clean, not doing anything called “private landscaping,” keeping your garage door shut except on recycling day when it could be open long enough to allow bringing the bins to the curb. Those sorts of things.

There was also a rule about trespass.

The Weingartens who owned and developed the land that became Eden Gardens and now owned a double-condo had arranged the sale of the property in such a way that it enclosed a small leechee grove. It was off limits to residents.

Dan Weingarten cultivated in this small space the biggest, reddest, spiniest and sweetest leechees in the southern states–they had won international competitions in Puerto Rico–and he sold them to a New York export company specializing in exotic fruits at a handsome profit every year. But he didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he thought the nut of the leechee tree was truly the most wonderful, stickily succulent, miraculous and ancient thing in the world.

A gate behind the Weingarten’s house let on to the grove, but only Dan Weingarten himself had ever been seen going through it. Whatever mystery surrounded the Leechee Grove, in the Association Bylaws, in bold print, under the rubric “No Access to Residents,” was a clause that read,

Residents of Eden Gardens are hereby notified that the Weingarten Leechee Grove (hereafter Grove) located adjacent to 1 Eden Gardens is off limits to owners and residents at all times. It is forbidden to all residents to enter the Grove or to pick fruit from the trees for sale, profit, or personal use. Failure to abide by this notice will constitute criminal trespass. Residents of Eden Gardens acknowledge that any violation of this rule will lead to expulsion from the Homeowners Association, loss of voting rights, and disqualification for continued residency.

Signing on to such a ridiculous, possibly even illegal and unenforceable rule seemed a small, almost absurdly small price to pay for living in a floral wonderland. Everyone who signed the agreement would initial the clause with a shrug, as if to say, “I think I can just about manage to stay out of his godamned leechee grove.”

That’s just what Adam Feinstein had said.

* * *

After surveying the plants, Mrs Feinstein decided it would be nice to do something useful, like back in Brooklyn where she watered the geranium trays on the fire escape every day, July to September, with a big aluminum sprinkler-can.

She looked right and left to find the garden hose.

But then she saw it slink away–when she stooped to turn on the spigot.

It moved quickly, invisibly, its position known only from a faint rustle of the ground it disturbed, staying close against the house, and not far away.

She stood up, straight and startled. Her stomach was pounding. Jill Hong had seen a small alligator a few months ago when the drought had been officially proclaimed on Cable 7 News. It was small enough to squeeze under the security fence. But it was an alligator.

Eve quickly abandoned her plan to wet the foliage and turned to scurry to the front door.

As she turned, a very clear and polite voice said from behind,

“Eve Feinstein! It can’t be you.

She stopped cold. The voice was familiar–it might have been anyone she’d known over the past fifty years. It sounded a little like Mel Lippman, but sexier. Mel had a lisp. She turned. She saw no one. But then, squinting to shade her eyes from the late afternoon sun, she saw him. Just in front of the crotons and hibiscus–a snake–coiled, its head raised–but not to strike. Its jaws were open. It was speaking.

His tongue quivered in a red flurry as he spoke–softly, mainly pleasantries. She couldn’t put together all the words at first because he seemed to have an accent. She put her wrist to her forehead in the way people do who have been overwhelmed by events, and she thought she might be crazy to notice that a talking snake sounded a bit like Sean Connery, her all-time favorite actor.

He was green and yellow with red diamonds that seemed to appear and disappear depending on how the sunlight played on his skin. Anyone who liked snakes would have said he was beautiful. His head was the perfect shape of a guitar pick, but a little more wide than sharp at the mouth. The yellow of his back streamed into pure gold around his black eyes and red fleck immediately above gave him the appearance of deep intelligence.

“Well, all I can say is you look fantastic. I didn’t expect to find you here.”

He was long, at least three feet, and easily able to intercept her at the sidewalk if she tried to make a run for it. Where was Adam when you needed him, she thought? Always having his midday snooze or watching basketball on TV, or sometimes disappearing for an inexplicable hour into the bathroom.

“I hear Disney is starting an extension of some kind nearby–are you some kind of robo-snake that got dropped off a truck? You are very realistic.”

She emphasized very to see if he would respond to a compliment.

The snake tossed his head back, looking a little as though he was poised to strike; Eve gasped. But the snake returned to full upright posture and said, a little disappointedly,

“My dear Eve, I am a coldblooded 100% viper of the order serpentes, an ectothermic amniote vertebrate. There are no coils, springs, memory sticks or warranties in any part of my gorgeous body. I exist to delight the eyes and to start conversations–sometimes to negotiate. It all depends.”

Eve found the July sun especially oppressive all of a sudden. Sweat was steaming down her ample back and finding its way over her broad cheeks. “On what?” she asked.

“First things first,” said the snake, loosening two coils and adjusting himself from an introductory to a more conversational posture. “Do you not find me lovely?”

“Well, said Eve, “I’ve never been this close to a snake, except maybe at Busch Gardens, but they were behind glass. I’d have to say you’re the prettiest snake I have ever seen up close.”

The snake bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, dear. I was designed to be. But it’s always nice to hear it from someone who’s a connoisseur. Your ancestor was a connoisseur. A little thinner than you perhaps, but she ate mainly fruit and veg.”

“I’ve been cutting back,” said Eve, lying. “I like nothing better than a nice salad and a glass of water for lunch. I do eat little more ample at dinner.” She thought immediately that ample was not a good choice of words when discussing weight. Maybe she should have said “amply.”

“A little more?” said the snake. “Do you call that prime rib, baked potato swimming in sour cream and fresh buttery rolls you had last night a little? And I do wish you’d learn to drink something besides iced tea–or rather iced treacle by the time you finish loading it with sugar.”

“You have a lot of attitude,” Eve said, slightly surprised at her bravery in the face of what might be her doom. “And how for godssake do you know what I had for dinner. Were you spying on me? Slithering around the garbage sacks?”

The snake waggled his head. He gave a little chuckle. It had the tone of a wise uncle who’d heard it all before. “My, no. I don’t need to spy and I would find it personally repellent to slither around anywhere, especially your rubbish. But I know you Eve Feinstein. And I know your other half too.”

Eve had never encountered such a well-spoken creature. A match even for Rabbi Jerry. His poise was like nothing she had ever witnessed. “You mean Adam, my husband?”

“Where is the old sinner–digesting lunch in a metabolic trance in front of the television, I expect, or having a long pooh while trawling through your copy of Cosmo? Gracious, if he gets any bigger you’ll be trading that car of yours for a truck.” The snake said this without flinching, as if he was asking the time of day.

It was true. Adam was addicted to anything chocolate, especially if it came wrapped in cellophane. He counted his postprandial calories not in units but in the number of “servings” he devoured. Both he and Eve loved roasts and potatoes and their avatars: fast food hamburgers and french fries. Like all true citizens of the great republic, they washed their fare down with flagons of diet drinks when being watched and beakers of sweet ones in private.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” said Eve, but you act like you know me. And I’m pretty sure I’d remember that. And you’re very rude.”

The snake paused and a contrite look immediately came upon his sharp countenance.

“Oh my goodness. It isn’t my intention to offend you. I came here to do you a favor. And Adam too.”

Eve thought she understood what was happening now. The day had been hot. She had either had a sun stroke or perhaps was dehydrated and was simply hallucinating. She was probably in a hospital; soon the snake’s voice would fade away and she would hear a nurse talking to her.

In any case, she felt certain that this was some kind of a dream and that she would wake up at any minute. To make it happen faster, she turned in the direction of the front door and began to walk away from her curious guest.

In a flash, he was in front of her, blocking her path.

“A favor, I said.”

Eve thought she should say something to the persistent creature.

“The biggest favor you can do me is go away.” A little startled at her bravery, she folded her arms in a defiant way and waited for the snake to react.

He glanced at her sternly.

“Are you happy Eve?”

She gave a little laugh. “Of course. We have everything we need. We have more than we need. You know, this place costs a pretty penny but it’s worth it. Must be pretty cushy for a rodent like you, too, with all these plants and shade.”

“I am a serpent, Eve, not a rodent. You were never much good in school were you? Anyway. As I see it, you don’t like your neighbors, you hate their pets, Adam–well, a clod at best, you live behind a wall that protects you from all the excitement of life outside, and you dream of sex with your rabbi. I’d call that unhappy.”

Eve waited for a moment. No one–especially Adam–would have said these things to her. Adam was the last to say anything insightful or sentimental.

“I don’t want to have sex with my rabbi,” she said at last.

“Well, whatever you people are calling coffee these days. But you have to admit, this is as dull as it gets: predictable weather, an endless blooming season, workers who do your gardening for you, and rules against everything and…”

“There have to be rules,” Eve said quickly, interrupting him. “That’s what makes it all bearable and why we love our Association and our little community. We don’t have to worry we just have to ask.”

Her conviction was thinning as she spoke.

“Just like your grandmother, eh? Quote the rules to me. And just as I told her, rules don’t make you love anybody. Do you love Adam because you took a vow to do it?”

He pushed his head forward in a way that urged her to answer.

“Well, no. I love Adam because he’s very kind. He’s a good man. He’s as honest as the day is long”

“Really?” said the snake. Did he tell you about his first wife?”

“I am his first wife,” said Eve with a trace of scorn. “He’s never been married before.”

“Yes he was,” said the snake. “He’s never told you. He used to think it would matter to you, and now when it doesn’t, he’s waited too long.”

“You are a liar Eve said abruptly.

“I am, but mainly I tell the truth. Because in my game, I’ve found the truth destroys so much more. But no, I am not lying about this–just ask him. It is his darkest secret and his worst fear that you might find out, even though he doesn’t love you any longer. And of course, you don’t love him, either. I have never understood why such secrets should amount to a cobbler’s fart when there’s nothing to make the truth matter anymore. You humans are really a desperately idiotic lot.”

Eve looked even more confused. And she knew from the sweat pouring down her back that she was not dreaming. Everything the snake said might be true. And it might not. It had been years and years since she had felt any passion for Adam. That’s the way she liked it–it kept everything in equilibrium, quiet and easy.

The idea that Adam could have kept a secret from her all these years, maybe even have wooed her thinking that a previous marriage would have scared her off–the dishonesty of it–the preternaturally dull Adam Feinstein a man with a secret? She had lived most of her adult life with a man with a past. That was exciting. He lied to her and kept things from her that she had a right to know. That was unacceptable. Maybe he was a criminal. Maybe his day job at Pawtucket Tool and Dye was a cover for government work. It didn’t seem likely, considering his spelling, but anything was possible. Adam Feinstein had a secret. Strange feelings were stirring in Eve’s ample bosom.

“That’s why I say,” said the snake, summoning her out of a reverie, “that’s why I am here to do you a favor.”

“Are you sure,” said Eve. “Are you sure he was married. So, what was her name?”

“He called her Lilly. She was beautiful–everyone thought she’d go to Hollywood. People didn’t talk about it in those days, but Lilly was something of a man-eater. She had a huge appetite. Didn’t say no to anyone, women either. She drove him crazy, and one day she just left him. He was living in Trenton at the time. That’s where you met him, isn’t it?”

Eve was suddenly sure that the snake was telling her the truth. Her heart was pounding when she said, “What kind of a favor?”

“You need to put this behind you. You need your own secret. Something that you can keep in your heart, so to speak, that Adam doesn’t know about, but something that would affect, perhaps even sting him a bit, if he did–just like the news about Lilly.”

Eve thought she knew where the snake was heading with this suggestion.

“Rabbi Jerry wouldn’t look twice at me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said with assurance. “There was a time, of course, but that was years ago.”

“No,” said the snake. You must do something dangerous, something he doesn’t know about, but you have to calculate a risk factor. There has to be risk.”

Eve Feinstein screwed her large face into a puzzle.

“You are as thick as your grandmother. No thicker. What does Adam love more than anything?”

“Chocolate,” replied Eve, “any thing fudgey.”

“No,” said the serpent. “He loves living here. He loves doing nothing. he loves watching his grass cut. He loves watching other people do his work for him.”

“True,” said Eve, “He loves this place. I think he loves it more than I do.”

“And what if you were to play a little trick on Adam. Something he would never know about. Something that no one but you will ever know about. But–just so you understand–if anyone ever did find out about it, your life here would be over?”

Eve’s face dissolved into a slightly wicked smile.

“The leechees,” she said. “You want me to pick leechees.”

“I don’t want you to do anything Eve,” said the snake in a slightly offended tone. “But this is what you want to do. It’s what you must do.”

***

Eve glanced down the street. She knew that Daniel Feinstein visited his son in Coral Gables every Saturday. He often returned on Sunday, so the time was right.

And the snake was right. The snake was brilliant. That silly Leechee Grove clause, the joke of the Association (under everyone’s breath, of course, not to offend Dan). And if Adam knew what she was going to do! If Adam had any inkling that Eve Feinstein, a woman without secrets, was about to enter Dan Weingarten’s Leechee Grove and come out with a pan full of leechees, he would hit the roof.

And then it would be done, and no one would know. Not Dan, not Adam, not anyone else in the community–just Eve, and the snake.

This time the snake did not block Eve’s path when she rushed into the house, into the kitchen, and located a Tupperware cup in the bottom cupboard for the task.

To her surprise, when she emerged again, the snake had disappeared. She half expected him to be waiting for her at the Leechee Grove gate. Eve felt even more exhilarated because it was now 3 PM, broad daylight. The residents would be incubating or napping in air conditioned comfort, away from the lawns they didn’t have to water and the hedges they didn’t have to prune. This wouldn’t be a stealth operation. Darkness would not hide her, and to her advantage the security lights wouldn’t switch on to reveal her unmistakable form.

Eve Feinstein felt almost lightheaded, almost noble. This was the right thing to do. She just knew it.

And it was all so easy. She walked toward the Weingarten double-condo as though she was heading for the mailboxes. When she got to their driveway, she headed toward the side of the house, as though on an errand, and spied the gate. There was no sign to identify its precious cargo. No signs saying “Keep Out” or “Trespassers will be Prosecuted.” No lock on the gate, which swung open easily when she undid the latch. No barking dogs. No alarms. “My God,” she thought to herself, “What has ever been easier than this?”

Eve gathered a heaping load of the reddest and fattest berries from the lowest branches of the tree.

She had never tasted a leechee and she was amazed at how easily the nut yielded at a little pressure from her fingers, virtually offering itself as a fruity sacrifice. She ate hungrily. They were sweeter than she imagined, a little acid, and she wasn’t sure she liked the texture. She ate another.

Her plan was to take the remainder, transfer them to an almost-vacant strawberry container she’d bought the week before, and leave them in the fridge for Adam to eat. Adam would ask her in all innocence, “What’s that great thing I just ate?” and she would say, “It was on special–I think it’s called mini-ruby-mango.”

She was thinking this as she shut the gate and saw Dan Weingarten standing in front of her in Bermuda shorts, caressing a nine iron.

***

The letter came to Mr and Mrs Adam Feinstein by certified mail and was signed by the Association lawyer.

Adam’s hand trembled as he read the short paragraph:

“It is my duty to inform you that you are in violation of Section III.1 of the Association Rules, subheading 4A, ‘The Leechee Grove’. The penalty for this violation is stipulated to be a fine and disqualification for residency status in Eden Gardens. The Association therefore requests per Section I.1 [Qualifications for Ownership and Residency Status in a Condominium] that you vacate the premises within 30 days of this notice. Your property will be advertised ‘For sale.’ Proceeds of the sale of the property will be distributed following the payment of all dues and penalties owed to the Association.”

Eve explained everything to Adam–the beautiful talking snake, how she had learned about his first marriage, how she had needed to do something secret, something to keep close to her heart because of what he had done and what he hadn’t told her.

She explained it calmly and as logically as possible under the circumstances, as Adam began to sob great sobs until he couldn’t catch his breath, and she thought she ought to call 911 before he had a heart attack.

Never been married before,” he was saying between gasps. “Never.”

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God Reads…

And knoweth the hearts and minds of all his creatures.

God at His Computer

Well, no–not what this is about. This is about the new genre in religion (not religious) non-fiction which I have decided to name, for lack of an original thought, “God Reads”–books that are affecting to make a new case for God, or to restate old ones.

Actually the genre goes back a few years: Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2005) was a little premature when it was published, barely a year before the atheist best-seller The God Delusion (yes, that Dawkins) appeared (September, 2006) and seemed to suggest an atheist sunrise instead. It was dutifully followed by McGrath’s less poignant The Dawkins Delusion (2007) which (nonetheless) is a far better read than its nasty title suggests.

Besides, the former Master of Wycliffe College, Oxford and the sometime Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had slugged it out before, several times in fact–McGrath having the distinction of having trained as a scientist (which shows) and Dawkins having the good fortune, or sense, never to have trained as a theologian (which also shows.)

And so the back and forth was born, God’s defenders giving in equal measure what his detractors were at pains to inflict on his holy name. What was also born was a minor canon of celebrity atheists, variously called “New,” “Fundamentalist,” “Brights,” “Militant”–or merely Annoying depending what side of the line you were standing on and whose book you had read most recently.

I recall visiting the home of a kindly retired atheist couple in Tallahassee in 2007 where I had gone to debate the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne on the “God Question.” On their coffee table was displayed the whole array of new atheist titles, of which they professed to have read “only a little of Dawkins.” Still, as a Victorian mother might have the Authorized Version of the Bible handy in the parlour, a new generation had arisen who had embraced new authority and were prepared to use it (or at least allude to it in the absence of actually having read it) –In other words, just like the Bible.

In reviews and popular media, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett were dubbed, and basked in the glow, the “Four Horsemen” of a new age of scientific thinking–knights on a mission to debunk the claims and pretensions of religion. A few wannabes such as Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis) made their literary votives to the cause as well; in some cases, their books were actually slightly better than the canonical ones. But essentially the ranks were closed, like the book of the gospels at only four.

The voice of the atheist is still heard in the land. But my guess is, the shine is off the apple and we were out of Eden anyway. Ideas that were considered titillating and slightly dangerous (who says atheism isn’t slightly sexy?) became less interesting when read. I doubt there will be a rejuvenation, a rebirth, of the surprising interest (in some cases bordering on rock star fervor), that greeted the Dawkins Revolution.

The shine was off the apple.

The current spate of God Reads is a bit more interesting, to take only two recent examples. Karen Armstrong’s the Case for God, already reviewed in these pages, is not only lacking in sophisticated theistic argument but also lacks a sophisticated thesis. This hat is so old it’s made of rabbit fur and just as fuzzy. She perpetuates the idea that religion is intrinsically good and that bad people make bad religion.
If only they would grow up, buy a shovel, and dig down to the goldmine of wisdom and niceness that lay at the heart of every faith. Armstrong seems to have bluffed her way through the history of religion for a long time, but in this book she shows a woeful lack of information about history, psychology, and anthropology and pushes a unified-theory-of-religious-thesis that was last fashionable in 1969, primarily in sanghas and disorderly convents.

Robert Wright’s seductively titled The Evolution of God (2009), a far better read than Armstrong and basically naturalistic in its view of religions, nonetheless develops a premise that is hard to swallow, or, to be fair, one that I have trouble understanding. As the New Yorker review enthused, “[Wright theorizes] that religious world views are becoming more open, compassionate, and synthesized. Occasionally, his prescriptions can seem obvious—for instance, that members of the different Abrahamic faiths should think of their religions as ‘having been involved, all along, in the same undertaking.’ But his core argument, that religion is getting ‘better’ with each passing aeon, is enthralling.”

Enthralling, sure. But if that is true, then the tendency of religion to become better must have something to do with either (a) people taking religious doctrine less seriously or (b) the secularization of society that makes religion less appealing and more vulnerable to common sense. That being so, how can anyone say that religion, as opposed to the species, is getting “better.”

Maybe no one is–exactly–and this is a quibble. As John Loftus observes, Wright’s God is illusory from an ontological standpoint: it is our attitudes about God that evolve and change, and a healthy critique of the past–including the sacred books and interpretations that form the story of the human past–are important relics of that development or amelioration. The process affects religion because it affects society in every other area. God evolves, not only man. My own guess is that Wright is being slightly mischievous. These “Abrahamic Faiths” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially the most aggressive of them. Better therefore to convince the slowest to evolve that a compassionate state of acceptance is its future? I am highly skeptical.

Where are we with God Reads? Is anybody likely to have the last word in this contest of words?

Prometheus

Just now, I think, the momentum is with the Defense, the defenders of the God-hypothesis. Not in terms of argument but in terms of energy. Apologists are paying attention to names that may have been missed first time around, prior to the Dawkins Revolution. Names like Scott Atran (In Gods we Trust), Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds, a superb slightly older work that deserves reading now), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Todd Tremkin (Minds and God), Barbara King (Evolving God). The pro-religion forces are reading works of cognitive science and evolutionary biology and psychology as fast as they can, and it seems to me with more at stake. You always read faster before an exam.

The God Question could not escape this lens indefinitely, and the best modern reads often begin with something like Wright’s evolutionary view rather than with the stale philosophical and theodical questions that were raised by the new atheists. Given the fact that interest in outbreaks of intellectual zeal last about as long at great awakenings in American religious history, the Dawkins phase is already looking a little quaint.

And it’s a good thing that the religious and anti-religious are reading some of the same stuff, even if they have different ends in view. When a team at the University of Montreal conducted experiments on an order of Carmelite nuns in 2005-6 (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience), we were flabbergasted to learn that while they were subjectively in a state of union with God, “this state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.” Can you even point to Reno on a map? I thought not.

Carmelite Ecstasy

The study (“Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”: Mario Bauregard and Vincent Paquette) confidently concluded that “the results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.”

In other people, thoughts about more mundane kinds of union, puppy dogs and chocolate will illuminate the same regions. But the analogy that the physical basis of “mystical” experience explodes the reality of mystical experience (and take this from someone who likes chocolate) is a point that apologists for religion are right to challenge: It is argumentum ad superciliarum–a bit of logic based on a naturalistic smirk.

To the extent that the evolutionary and cognitive studies resemble this logic they have a long way to go. I offer the frankly disappointing view and research of Richard Hamer in The God Gene and the (antithetical) hodgepodge of material served up by Rause, Newberg and d’Aquili (all three medical doctors) in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief as evidence of where science can lead the opposite armies.

But the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God–no matter how much we want to make it that. And even if it were, we still won’t have settled the dispute between people like Hitchens, who think God is a very bad, indeed a poisonous idea, and people like McGrath who see it as the most sublime thought of which we mortals are capable.

Maybe Feuerbach was right: it all depends on what you eat.

Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

The never-ending story in New Testament studies is first, how the gospels came to be written down (and where, and when) and how they “relate” to each other. The long-suffering faithful have for centuries–since the process of vernacular Bible translation in the sixteenth century got its legs–been encouraged to believe that the canonical order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is also a chronological order.

The belief is somewhat flimsily supported in fairly early references by writers like Papias, whose reputation as a scholar was already challenged by the man who recorded his words, the fourth century writer Eusebius, and the heresy-fighting bishop, Irenaeus–the real father of giving names and legends to the gospels.

Students studying for divinity and graduate degrees across Europe and North America have learned for more than a century that the matter of who-wrote-what-first is endlessly fascinating. The average opinion in the most prestigious and hyperactive research institutions in North America and Europe is that orthodoxy and canonicity are at best provisional ways of looking at the gospels, and, worse, misleading from the standpoint of solving the puzzle of Christian origins.

Many of these neophytes have been treated to professorial displays of source-theory so brilliant and so complicated that they could well be considered algebra. Others, so deceptively self-assured and literally faithful to ancient testimony that they cannot possibly be correct:

The standard model

Armed with only a smattering of Greek and a stash of newly- minted ingenuity, they are urged to go at the problem as though beneath it is buried a secret jewel, the pearl of great price. But it isn’t. What lay beneath the architecture and power-points, alas, are processes that the gospels themselves conceal by virtue of their simple givenness. Looking for the “origin” of a gospel is bit like looking for Jesus in the tomb on Easter morning: it was here just a minute ago.

The theory of Markan priority and the more ambitious but eventually standard “two source” hypothesis (based on the notion that Matthew and Luke embedded Mark’s gospel and must have possessed a written sayings source to account for materials not found in Mark–the variable Q will do) enjoyed sovereignty of sorts for three generations. –Mainly because it had the simplicity that mnemonics have in helping you to remember chemical formulas. {ML} = Mk+Q.

The so-called Griesbach hypothesis, in and out and up or down in favour in each generation, is just as plausible for the diagrammatics of a case: Matthew wrote first; Luke based his story on Matthew and Mark used both. It has its own bad-boy appeal, while theories of Lukan and even Marcionite priority have gotten less attention.

It is notable but unsurprising that in all of this clatter the traditional idea that consistency is not provided by literary dependence but by revelation is not discussed very much among the algebraists. Needless to say, I am not complaining about the end of supernaturalism; I welcome it, and note that in the closest book-tradition to Christianity–Islam—these priority, hierarchy and relational questions are much less important. The point is not that we should use plenary inspiration as a way of solving source- and dependence- issues, but that the complexity of some of the theories make inspiration an almost welcome relief from the haggling. –Especially (dare I say it) any discussion or theory about Q.

In a sense, Christianity brought this dilemma on itself. While divine inspiration was held up as the proof of the integrity of the gospels from very early in the tradition, it was held up in a heresiological context–that is, in the war between orthodox bishops and the religious “others,” the heretics. It involved the book itself (or books), of course, but just as much it involved the question of who can claim to be inspired and who safeguards the process through which inspiration can be validated. What (book) do you trust was inseparable from the question of who do you trust.

The suggestion that the authors were “apostles” or “apostolic men”–friends of the apostles, like Mark, allegedly, and Luke–seems gratuitous even in the context of the age. And the age, by the way, had a habit of attributing a gospel to anybody of any prominence whose legend would win hearts and minds to their cause: that is why the attribution of gnostic gospels to Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, Judas and even to “Truth” sheds light on the general habit of pseudonymity and forgery.

P52

But as we know, if not through consensus, the Gnostics weren’t the first or only ones to play the name game: it was being played on the Catholic side in Paul’s name after Paul was dead, in Peter’s name, and in James’s and in Jude’s and John’s. But why stop with what we know almost certainly: it was also probably being played in the case of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whose perilously thin legends and reputations were created after tradition (read: bishops) had named the anonymous writings ascribed to them.

Biographical authority and authenticity have to be understood against the backdrop of battles with Marcionites and harder-core separatists. It is finally solidified in Book 4 (8.2) of Irenaeus’s turgid work Against the Heresies where he claims to have compiled a book of all the “legitimate” successors of the apostles and the Lord: γενομενος δε εν ‘Ρωμη διαδοχην εποιησαμην μηχρις ‘Ανικητου…”: “And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.”

Irenaeus the Fierce: Scourge of Heretics

The gospels, in this pitch and toss, are held to be locked away in safety from the corruption of heresy through the lawful succession of the western (Roman) bishops. They are “in” the church, he says as money is in a bank; the heretics are outside, “like so many weeds.” There are four of them, neither more nor fewer—just as there are four winds, four corners of the earth, four providing angels.

Irenaeus and his brother bishops were not especially concerned about the relationship between and among gospels, for the simple reason that (unlike most modern interpreters) he theorized that they constituted four independent testimonies to the truth, miraculous, therefore, precisely to the extent that there had been no consort among the authors and no copying of one to the other source. The heresy fighters were concerned with preserving traditions, the origins of which had already been lost in a century-old fog. The question of a copyist tradition only reveals itself when the belief in the miraculous four-fold testimony unravels, a chapter that began to be written at the end of the nineteenth century.

copyist

The Greek lyric poet Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE. Through the efforts of Aristarchus (2nd century BCE) some of his work, most of its fragmentary, has been collected and survives. He was remarkable for his mastery, in some cases invention, of metrical styles and for his mastery of the Ionic dialect. (If you have not read any Anacreon lately, read, at least, “The Picture” for its lyrical elegance).

I mention Anacreon because he stands at the beginning of a long tradition of preservation through imitation. In a 1958 collection of his work by Bruno Gentili (Rome, Edizioni dell’ Ateneo) the editor for the Classical Review of that year complained that at least 37 of the poems included as genuine–based on his assessment of vocabulary, testimonia, and metrics–were not authentic and should be moved to an appendix or to the nearest dustbin.

There is even a suggestion that the editor tried to smuggle some very obviously non-anacreonic verse into the edition because he thought they were “pretty”—for shame.

What everyone knows about classical tradition, however, is that Anacreon’s name, reputation, style and prestige is preserved through the art of literary imitation. –Through copying.

New Testament scholars are very much more familiar with classical civilization than they used to be. So much so that biblical studies on the New Testament side has matured enormously in the twentieth and early twenty-first century from the parochial theological discipline it was in the nineteenth. But at a programmatic level, it needs to scrap the idea of authorial attribution completely and to acknowledge that the production of New Testament gospels, at least in the case of the synoptics, was an anacreonic process—a process of imitation, based on the desire to imitate and enhance rather than merely to produce or propagate an original. Admirers of the Jesus-story were using a prototype for copy exercises. Whose story it was is of no importance, and remains of no importance well into the second century.

There is no good reason why an anonymous copyist would have done what he did because he thought the copy he was working from was “authoritative”—and indeed it probably came to him without a titulus , that is to say, attribution. Similarly, as with the ancient tradition in letters, some copyists felt moved to add detail, story, to alter, to correct—things that biblical scholars have known to be true about the gospels for a long time–indeed have developed critical methods to cope with them–but have linked to a different set of motivations based not on what we know to be true of classical letters but what we think to be true of a sui generis form of sacred literature..

Paul: a model letter writer for later copyists

The elongation of a source by adding a birth legend or resurrection appearances is completely appropriate to the anacreonic tradition as beautification, as “outdoing” the model. The gnostic gospels which flaunt the model and seem to sing to a different harp, in this way of looking at the process, are simply failed copies. Even within the New Testament, Paul’s “authentic” if composite letters served as models for every aspiring paulinist who wanted to improve on his thought and language, the winner being the author of the letter to the Ephesians.

As with Anacreon, we know enough to know what the essential ingredients—the equivalent of the theme or metrics—would have looked like. I am not cynical about being able to construct, for example, the original narrative structure or gospel prototype. But I am completely unconvinced that any of the current gospels form that structure or that any of the received gospels is that original.

I find it more probable that we possess four of the exercises, and that these exercises have to be submitted to an analysis based not on “redaction” and tendency—fidelity to or departure from a long-gone plumb-line–as much as on the more or less purely artistic intention of the writer in terms of the story he is telling.

In fact, biblical criticism, in some of its operations, does this already but it often does it as though the question of priority is the same as the question of “source.” We do not know who wrote any gospel—not even “John’s” (and the editorial process in the Fourth Gospel is more explicit than in any synoptic). We know only one ancient collector who insisted that the source was anonymous, or more precisely “the true source”– the heretic: Marcion.

It is not surprising that to smother the effect of this radical suggestion, both copyists and fathers insisted on attribution. The gnostic penchant for attributing and the slanders of both Jewish and conservative Roman observers, with their different but equally sharp insistence on literary-historical pedigree is enough to explain the demand for named sources. But the habit, or defense, belongs to the history of apologetics and not to the earliest manuscript tradition. For all we know one such copyist may have been named Mark and another Luke. But if that is so, it is only accidentally so and they were men of no significant personal distinction. They were men who took it upon themselves to imitate, “restore” or amend the lost (or nearly lost) prototype, the master-copy of the Jesus story.